The Yorkshire Moors. Early February, 1999
You could see how Fetch Priory got a reputation as a haunted house. A brooding gothic monstrosity set in miles of deserted moorland; it was a Hammer scriptwriter's dream. I was starting to wonder if I was wasting my time here.
The article had been in the back of the local paper, in the space where they put the flying saucer people and the flat Earthers when they want to fill up some column inches. A couple of tourists had been out driving on the moor when their cheap rented hire-car broke down. They'd wandered off in search of help - lucky they didn't break their idiot necks, roaming around in the dark like that- and found a monastery. An honest-to-God - I would have winced at the unintentional pun, but wolf faces aren't built that way - large-as-life monastery, filled with "guys in, like, you know, robes and stuff," who spoke a "weird language" which neither of the two hapless Californians had been able to understand.
Well, they'd been made comfortable enough by the monks, although their repeated use of the word "telephone" had elicited nothing except bafflement. A few glasses of "some kinda honey-flavored wine" (mead, I assumed), had left them feeling fairly mellow, and after they left the next day and flagged a lift to the nearest town, they'd decided to return with a bottle of something expensive as a thank-you.
Only to discover that the monastery where they'd stayed the night was now a tumbled down ruin, with all sorts of extra architecture tacked onto it.
Something from the Middle Ages appearing in the present, then vanishing again? It all sounded weirdly similar to Eriksburgh, but I have to admit I didn't really think much of the story at first. To be honest, I just assumed that they'd passed the test that Clinton failed, and figured out that they were supposed to inhale. But then I got one of those damned little mental tugs at the back of my mind, telling me I should check further. I hate those. The feeling of being manipulated by an unknown force. Oddly, it's the "unknown" bit I object too more than the "being manipulated" part. But I thought, what the hell, maybe there's something to this after all.
So I started digging, and hit pay dirt pretty quickly. It turned out that this wasn't the first time something like this had happened. During World War II, a German bomber blew the hell out of the priory (which is odd in itself - why would a German bomber be targeting isolated houses in deserted moors whilst there were English cities all around?). A Home Guard unit had been sent to check up on the place, only to wind up in the monastery, where they also received blank stares in response to the word "telephone." Their report had been classified (another oddity; the authorities at the time should have treated them like nuts, not swallowed their story and hidden the whole thing), and I'd only been able to see it, more than fifty years later, thanks to St. Cloud. I've no idea where he got hold of a copy, but he's a Nosferatu elder, which is pretty much the answer to that question in itself.
Curiously, there didn't seem to be any references to the place being haunted beyond those two incidents. Fetch Priory had a completely "conventional" history - practically a textbook for a house of its type. Cistercian foundation, got rich on the wool trade, closed down by Henry VIII and taken over as a private residence by a family of wealthy recluses, the Bowens. The last of who was presumed killed by the German bomb, although no bodies were ever found. And left as an uninhabited (and uninhabitable) ruin ever since.
So there I was, snaking through the long grass surrounding the ruin in my wolf-shape, looking for answers before I'd even figured out which questions to ask. What were the secrets of Fetch Priory?
A rustle in the grass alongside me jerked my silver-furred head around, and I found myself staring at a roaming fox, less than twenty feet away. His eyes gazed back at me, wide and afraid, and his body was tense, wanting to run yet knowing instinctively that I could catch him if I chose.
I locked my gaze with his and barked softly, trying to gain his confidence even as I sought to extend my awareness into his simple mind. This sort of thing always looked so easy when Eirik did it, but so far all I've managed to achieve is the most rudimentary communication with animals. Most of my early training was focused on mastery of shape shifting, and my other talents are quite weak by comparison.
The fox started to relax as I managed to communicate my peaceful intentions. I barked again, softly, as I struggled to make him understand my questions. Had he been near the priory a few nights ago? Had he seen two human beings? I didn't express it in those terms, of course. I conjured up a mental image, shape and size and smell. Animals aren't, on the whole, as dumb as people think, but they see the world very differently than we do. It can be a real trick sometimes to twist your perceptions enough to "translate" what you're asking so that it fits the animal's world-view. Like explaining color to someone born blind, "talking" to animals isn't something you can describe to someone who hasn't experienced it.
I was getting confusion right now. He didn't understand why I was asking something I already knew. I'd been there when the men came. Had I forgotten?
He picked up on my surprised unease, and twitched skittishly. He was thinking about running off again. I soothed him hastily, trying to get a clearer image of what he'd seen. Another vampire in wolf shape - probably another Gangrel, then. It had been prowling around the priory - the fox thought of it as an oddly shaped stone hill, with caves inside - and had watched as the two men approached. Then the men were not there, and the vampire had run off. The fox had been afraid of it, and had hidden until it left.
I cocked my head, startled, and flicked my ears forward. (I find myself slipping into these kinds of animal mannerisms when I spend too long in my other shape). What did the fox mean, "then the men were not there"?
The creature's reply was almost a mental shrug. They were there, and then they were not there. It had been pleased that they were not there because it had been hungry and wished to hunt for mice and rats around the priory foundations. It had no interest in the reason for their disappearance. Into my mind, an image flowed - two blonde, longhaired surfer-dude types, looking cold and miserable as they trudged through the night. Ahead of them, the priory was clearly visible to the fox's excellent night-vision, though I doubted human eyes could have picked it out. And then the two men were surrounded by some kind of rippling distortion in the air, like a heat haze. After a second, they were no longer visible, and - more tellingly to the fox - their scent no longer carried in the breeze. I gave a little whine, and sat down to think. Absent-mindedly, I lifted one hind paw to scratch behind my ear. I wasn't actually itching there, but it's my wolf-shape equivalent of chewing the top of my biro - a nervous habit that shows up when as I'm trying to concentrate.
Some sort of advanced Obfuscate power might explain the disappearance of the two tourists, but not their memories of spending the night in a medieval monastery. So. The probability was that they'd gone somewhere outside of our physical reality, and come back again. Star Trek aside, I wasn't totally unfamiliar with the concept - Eirik always claimed that we did the same thing when we met the troll in Iceland, but he was vague on the actual mechanics of how we achieved it. When Eirik gets technical, he tends to do it in a mixture of medieval vulgate Latin and Old Norse, which is an interesting academic challenge to decipher but frustrating when you want clear, simple answers. He talked a lot about regiones, areas that exist simultaneously in two or more realities. I was stupid enough to mention the phrase "Venn diagram" at that point, the discussion went off at a tangent, and I wound up spending the rest of the night trying to explain set theory to an eleven-hundred-year-old Viking poet. May you live through interesting conversations, as the Chinese might put it.
I wondered what the other vampire had been doing, prowling around like that. It seemed a strange coincidence for him to be there just as Something That Man Was Not Meant To Know ™ was happening at the Priory for the first time since World War II. On the other hand, it seemed even more of a stretch to imagine that he could have been responsible. I'd never heard even a rumor of a vampire with reality-altering powers. Of course, that didn't mean there weren't any. Thanks to Eirik's stories about the Covenant of the Ice Lake, I knew that the Order of Hermes has experimented with the magical properties of regiones, back in the Middle Ages. The Tremere might know how to pull off a reality shift of some sort. I could ask Kathryn, although whether she'd tell me was another matter.
Speak of the Devil. My ears swiveled again as I caught the faint sound of an engine on the still night air. The fox heard it too, and prepared to bolt. I gave a soothing little whine, telling him that I would find food in exchange for his assistance. He was uncertain, but he didn't flee - he just pulled back a little further and found himself a better hiding place.
I could see the battered black van lumbering along the even more battered old road now, and loped forward to meet it. I've always delighted in the speed and grace of my lupine form, though with all the werewolf activity on the moors, I have to be careful about roaming too far from the bright lights of the city.
I sat down in the glare of the headlamps as the van drew to a halt. My two companions had arranged to meet me here, after I'd used my skills as a shapechanger to reconnoiter the priory. I'd tried doing an aerial overview in bat form, but my night vision isn't too good in that shape, and my sonar hadn't spotted anything useful. My wolf body, with its heightened senses, had proved a much better bet, and I'd managed to survey pretty much the entire place before I'd found the fox.
Kathryn was the first out of the van, as is her wont. Her greeting was also typical of her charming personality. "Are you planning to sit there with your tongue lolling out all night?"
I nodded eagerly, then stood up and wagged my tail furiously at her. Barking wildly, I began to jump up at her, trying to lick her face. Kathryn looks and acts like some sort of Middle Eastern royalty - slim, beautiful, a fashion sense most Toreadors would kill for, and a mind like a steel trap to boot. I've made it my mission to puncture her serenely aristocratic bubble whenever the opportunity presents itself.
She spoke a word. I couldn't remember what it was - somehow, my brain couldn't hold onto the sounds - but it knocked me back about seven feet and sent me sprawling, ignominiously, in a patch of nettles. Inside me, the Beast stirred in anger, but I crushed it into submission without any real effort.
"One more display like that, and it's obedience classes for you, my lad," Kathryn warned me severely, though there was just a hint of a smile around her mouth. Kate- I call her that to piss her off, she hates to have her name abbreviated - is a good sort, as we bloodsucking undead go, but she can kill a man at twenty paces with one blow from her tongue. It takes patience and experience to appreciate her better qualities. Of course, she's a Tremere, so most vamps refuse to take the time on principle.
I willed myself to change as Nick emerged from the van on the other side. Horror movies always show the transformation from beast to man as some kind of agonizing process, a twisting of every bone and sinew, but it doesn't really feel anything like that - not to me, anyway. The best way to describe it is to imagine your whole body turned into some sort of viscous liquid and poured into a mold. My vision dimmed, grayed out momentarily, and then went from monochrome to color. I swayed slightly as my center of gravity shifted, and then I compensated and straightened up. I can never pinpoint when exactly the clothes reappear - the fur just seems to flow back and reveal them.
I shook my unruly dark-red hair back into place and glanced over at Nick. "Did Tony leave any of those meat rolls or pies of his in the back of the van?" Tony was Nick's ghoul, the drummer in a heavy-metal garage band whom he'd got some kind of history with.
Nick shrugged, brushing his own shaggy, light-brown hair away from his face in a gesture, which weirdly mirrored my own. "Why? They're not much use to any of us."
"I need them to bribe an informant."
Another shrug - actually, that's one of Nick's trademark gestures - and he disappeared back into the van. After a moment, he reappeared with a bundle of shrink-wrapped packages. I gave a quick smile of thanks as I took them. After the usual struggle to get them open - if there truly is a Hell, the inventor of shrink-wrap is surely there - I gave up and fished out a penknife to rip the damned stuff apart.
"Would your informant prefer them cooked?" asked Kathryn, mildly. I shot her a suspicious look, but she just raised her eyebrow. "What? Good service should be properly rewarded; we understand that in the Tremere. If this little furry friend of yours gave us something useful..."
"Very useful. Or at least very... interesting."
"Fine". Kathryn's elegant, coffee-colored fingers traced elaborate patterns in the air for a second, and I felt the meat rolls heat up in my hand. The scent wafted through the air and caught the fox's attention. Slowly, I walked towards him and placed his reward on the ground. He advanced cautiously, recognizing the three of us for the predators we were, snatched the food, and was gone in a trice.
"Skittish little guy, isn't he?" Nick observed, in his American drawl. Sorry, Canadian drawl. He gets quite riled about the way hardly anyone in Britain can tell the difference.
I shrugged. "He survives that way."
"Don't we all," Kathryn muttered dryly. "So, what exactly did he tell you."
"He saw those two tourists walk towards the Priory. Then they just disappeared. One minute there, the next, wham! No trace of them. And a fox's senses are a lot harder to fool than a human's."
"Did he show you where? Precisely where?" I nodded. At Kathryn's impatient gesture, I led the way to the spot. The rough path crunched under our boots, well maintained once but now muddy and overgrown with weeds. The road that they'd driven the van up simply petered out, well short of the Priory's remains.
I had to crouch down slightly to get my bearings. The fox had been looking from a lower angle, and over to the left, but the jagged portion of the crumbling church tower had been directly in front of him, which would put the exact point of their disappearance...
Kathryn crouched down. The position would have been uncomfortable for a mortal, but our cold, dead bodies don't cramp and stiffen in the same way. Her long, delicate fingers stroked the ground as her face became rapt and trance-like. I'd seen her do this several times before. She was drawing on her psychometric abilities, trying to glean an image. Normally it only works when someone has touched or handled an object before she has, but we've found that there's sometimes a "trace impression" left in something which has been close to a supernatural effect of some type.
By the time I'd registered that her body was falling limply forwards, her face had already struck the ground with a very audible thwack. Nick reacted faster than I did, leaping forwards to lift her into a sitting position.
"Kathryn? Kate, talk to us! What happened?" He sounded worried. I agreed with him. She continued to stare ahead of her, showing not the slightest sign of independent movement - not even blinking. It's a curious quirk I've noticed amongst my fellow neonates - our blink reflex seems to persist for years or decades after the Embrace. Elders eventually lose the habit, which is one of the things which makes it so intimidating to talk to most of them. That, and the knowledge that they could rip you apart faster than - well, than you could blink.
Kathryn convulsed. Her fangs extended, and she uttered a low, guttural snarl, which had my Beast surging to the fore to meet the challenge. I held it in check, although not easily. I could tell from the clenching and unclenching of Nick's fists that he was going through a similar struggle.
Kathryn looked wildly between us, her eyes manic. Then gradually she seemed to register who we were, and remember what we were doing. She retracted her fangs, deliberately altering her body language to appear non-threatening, hunching herself in and lowering her eyes.
The moment of danger when we might have flown at each others throats gradually passed. We were in control once more. I hate these sorts of moments. I like to feel that I'm in control of my own actions, and the ever-present danger of becoming a mindless animal and tearing into my friends and allies... is distasteful. None of us spoke about it. As vampires, we all understand how control can be lost.
I crouched down, deliberately putting myself below Kathryn's eye level. By assuming a vulnerable, unaggressive posture myself, I'd help here to keep her own Beast under control. Those kinds of behaviors are pretty common amongst our kind. You see it most blatantly at Althings, amongst my fellow Gangrel, but even the Ventrue and Toreador do it. They might claim that the endless games of Prestation and Status are an intellectual diversion, like some grandiose chess game, but that's nothing more than a self-serving egotistical delusion. They're really the kind of ritualized pack-hierarchy behavior you see amongst wolves, a way to keep the Beast in check. To pacify it by exerting dominance, or cow it with fear of the dominator. You can always tell when a vampire is newly Embraced. The way they move is too human.
"That was..." she shook her head slightly. "Intense is the best word, I think."
"You got an image?"
"An image?" She laughed shakily. And Kate isn't easily shaken. "I got more bloody images than I knew what to do with. Its as if - as if time's been compressed of squeezed down in this one spot, so everything that happened here over the past few hundred years, feels like it happened yesterday. It was too fast for me to absorb it all. I got flashes here and there - the Priory being built, monks, guys in what looked like Elizabethan clothes, what looked like some rather elderly World War II soldiers -"
My ears pricked up. The Home Guard unit?
" - but it's all a jumble that I can't make any sense of. You were right, though, Daim, there's something very odd about this place."
I nodded. "You fit to explore?"
She scrambled to her feet, a little too hastily. A predator anxious to avoid any sign of weakness in front of her fellow predators. "Fit and ready."
"Good." I looked a Nick. "Looks scary, doesn't it?"
"Could be all sorts of dangers lurking within."
"So we should be chivalrous."
We looked at each other. We looked at Kathryn. In perfect unison, we chorused: "Ladies first."
She shot us both a look that spoke much more eloquently than words, and stalked down the path ahead of us, towards the grim silhouette of the ruined Priory. In two hours of searching, we found an assortment of rotted furnishings, mud, mildew, damaged stonework, an indignant rat, and droppings from what were probably lots of different animals.
In short, a total waste of time.
"Nothing," Nick reported in disgust as his lanky frame dropped to the ground beside me. He'd used his climbing gear - ropes and grappling claw things, I don't know what they're supposed to be called - to scramble up to one of the half-rotted floors whose stairwells had been blown apart by the German bomb. I could have flown up there, but shape shifting burns blood, and I don't have an unlimited supply. I usually subsist off a combination of cattle in the local farms, and girls I meet in nightclubs, neither of which was readily available around here. Nick did a lot of climbing in his mortal life - he's 6'5", so he has a natural head for heights. The upper floors had been our last hope to find something interesting, and they'd been a dry well, too.
"Two and a half hours until dawn," Kathryn said gloomily. "We need to get moving pretty quickly if we want to leave a comfortable safety margin to get home. Daim, you going to ride with us?"
A crazy idea occurred. I shook my head.
"No thanks, Kathryn. I'll stick around here for a while. I can sleep in the earth and head back tomorrow."
"Useful trick," Nick said with a touch of envy.
I gave him a rueful grin. "It's one I wish I'd had in the early days. Eirik did the usual Gangrel trick of leaving me to fend for myself right after my Embrace. I didn't see him for about a month and a half, after that first night. It was a pretty hard scrabble existence."
We were trudging down the rough path towards the van. Kathryn had pulled ahead of us slightly, but she suddenly stopped dead.
We saw it. A burly, indistinct figure, standing between the van and us. I debated whether to activate my night-vision power, but decided against it. If it was just a passing mortal - or worse, a reporter, following up the Californians' story - the last thing I wanted to do was spook him with glowing red eyes.
"His aura's wrong."
I was about to ask Kathryn what the hell she meant, but Nick beat me to it. She looked over at him, frowning.
"An aura is usually a continuous glow across the whole of the body. This one is... patchy. Like parts of it are transparent. It's as if he's not completely real."
We advanced towards him, cautiously. None of us was armed, but at least I could call on my claws, if it came to a confrontation. It didn't. While we were still twenty yards away, the mystery figure simply disappeared. As with the two Californians, there was a flicker like a heat haze momentarily visible around him.
Nick gave a low whistle. "Shee-it."
"For once," Kathryn said in her impeccable, cultured, cut-glass English accent, "I agree with our colleague. Shee-it."
Nick rolled his eyes at her. "Thanks. I think. So what do we do now?"
"We stick with the plan and head back home. Unless you want to risk catching a suntan." Kathryn pointed out with deadly logic. "But we come back here. Soon. Daim, are you sure you want to stick around?"
In point of fact, I wasn't sure at all. The Beast was beating at the bars of its cage, demanding that we flee this place of strange phenomena and unknown dangers. But I forced it down and shook my head.
She shrugged. "Your choice, then. Good luck."
I felt spooked once the taillights of the van had disappeared into the distance. I supposed that I should find the situation funny. I felt like a teenager in a low-budget horror flick, about to be jumped by a creature of the night. Except that I was a creature of the night. How ironic.
I strolled back down the path, to the spot where the two tourists had vanished. When you got right down to it, this was a very, very stupid idea. But Kathryn had a good point about the suntan. I was going to have to sleep somewhere.
I lay back on the ground, allowing my muscles to relax completely as I drew on the power in my blood. The earth rose around me, warm and welcoming, and the world disappeared from view as I slipped into slumber.
The first thing I noticed when I emerged was the state of the path. There must have been heavy rainfall during the day, because it had deteriorated into pot holed stretch of viscous mud. The next thing, I noticed were the torches. Bright flame burned from many of the windows of the Priory, making the Beast stir slightly in unease.
And then I noticed the Priory itself. No longer ruined but massively whole, surrounded by a low stone wall, standing tall and proud against the backdrop of the full moon. From within, I heard the voices of monks, raised in song. My little experiment had worked better than I'd dared to hope.